What I bought - March 2014 selections

On the narrow Augesd dam where for so many years the old miller had been accustomed to sit in his tasseled cap peacefully angling, while his grandson, with shirt sleeves rolled up, handled the floundering silvery fish in the watering can, on that dam over which for so many years Moravians in shaggy caps and blue jackets had peacefully driven their two-horse carts loaded with wheat and had returned dusty with flour whitening their carts - on that narrow dam amid the wagons and the cannon, under the horses' hoofs and between the wagon wheels, men disfigured by fear of death now crowded together, crushing one another, dying, stepping over the dying and killing on another, only to move on a few steps and be killed themselves in the same way. (Leo Tolstoy, from War and Peace)

Okay, so here's the story. As I was writing the last few weekly review posts, I realized that while they were taking up the same amount of time they usually did and remained a time suck, I didn't have as much time to give to them. I noted last year when I took a break that I was spending a lot of time volunteering at my daughter's school, and that has only gotten more intense this year. As I mentioned last year, my wife was out of work, and I've been trying to do some random things to make money for us, even though I'm wildly unemployable after not having a job since 2005. I noticed I was spending a lot of time doing other things, and despite the fact that I'm not burned out on writing reviews, as I was last year, I felt I just couldn't give them my full attention. Two years ago, I could keep up with the daily posts a bit better, but this year, I'm writing a bit more in each one, as I'm not just writing about one page of art, but several. I try very hard to stay at least three weeks ahead of myself on those posts, because you never know when you're going to have to take a break for a few days. All of this meant that I felt I wasn't able to devote as much time to the weekly reviews, and that's no fun. I really like doing them, but something had to give, so in March, I just stopped. I decided to try a "best-of" post at the end of the month, with highlights of the comics I bought during the month. This would, I figured, allow me to be a bit more in-depth but also allow me to skip some stuff about which I don't have a ton to write. My wife managed to get a job (yay!), so I don't have to worry about that aspect of my life anymore (I can go back to be a layabout), but I still have a lot of stuff going on, so I might get back to doing weekly stuff soon, or I might stick to this format for a few months. How's that sound? I know a lot of people seem to enjoy my "What I Bought" weekly columns, and I appreciate that, but sometimes, it's hard to cram everything into the day, you know? Anyway, here are some things I bought (or just read, in the case of prose books) this month and what I thought of them. That's all that really matters, right?

The abyss gazes also

Moon Knight #1 by Jordie Bellaire (colorist), Warren Ellis (writer), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer), Declan Shalvey (artist), Ellie Pyle (associate editor), and Stephen Wacker (editor). $3.99, 20 pgs, FC, Marvel. Moon Knight created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin. Joy Mercado created by Doug Moench and Kevin Nowlan. Detective Flint created by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz.

There's a void at the center of Moon Knight #1, and it's the title character. Moon Knight has always been reflective, much like the satellite after which he takes his name, as writers over the years have used others to define him. "Marc Spector," the core personality, was never very well developed - he was Jewish, he was a mercenary - and over the years, as Moon Knight took on other personalities, they became reflections of the people for whom they were created. "Marc Spector" was partly a creation of necessity, as the boy ran from his rabbinical father to the furthest place he could go, which was killing men for money. "Steven Grant" was created for Marlene Alraune, his lover, who didn't want to be reminded of Marc Spector after he was involved in the killing of her father. Grant became the respectable aspect of the man, and it was always an uneasy fit, even when the writers of the comic focused on it. "Jake Lockley" was the streetwise personality, the one who could speak to Crowley, the drunkard, or Gena, the blue-collar worker, and who could go places Grant could not. Ellis strips away anyone for whom those personalities would matter - this issue is absent Jean-Paul, Marlene, Crowley, and Gena. The only people off whom Moon Knight can reflect are those who know only his superhero personality - Joy Mercado, who first appeared in the initial iteration of Moon Knight in 1983, and Detective Flint, whom the hero has assisted throughout his career.

Without the people who allow Moon Knight to be "human," he's isolated and empty - the only thing left for him is as a costumed hero. Moon Knight is the only personality that exists. On the final page, we see the ghosts of other personalities haunting him, but Khonshu is the only "real" thing in his life anymore.

The void that is Moon Knight meets another void, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent whose body was ruined by an IED and is now killing people and stealing their body parts to become "better." Ellis doesn't need to emphasize the parallels, because they're obvious - the agent never gets a name, and Flint makes sure no policeman at the scene of the latest murder says Moon Knight's full name, as that would mean Flint would be obligated to restrain him. Moon Knight has no name, but he's on the side of angels. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent could have been him - a man left behind with nothing who decides to rebuild himself. "Marc Spector" rebuilt himself psychologically by grafting personalities onto himself so that he could function in society. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is trying to rebuild himself physically, which means more obvious damage.

What Ellis doesn't say but which he and Shalvey make clear is that Moon Knight's rebuilding has wounded as many people as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent's, although in less ostensibly gruesome ways. While the comic can be read without knowing anything about Moon Knight's history, Ellis cleverly ties it into that history for those people who have read the earlier incarnations, and it adds depth and heft to this somewhat cursory adventure.

The void extends to the wonderful artwork, as well. Shalvey conjures up a dark New York, one with hidden subterranean levels and canyon-esque alleys, and places ragged people into this city. Flint, of course, is as hard as his name, with hair that appears to have been cut with a blunt butter knife, and Shalvey gives him hooded eyes, a squat nose, and dark lines on his cheeks. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is a Frankenstein's monster, and Shalvey/Ellis appear to be hinting that Moon Knight's latest iteration, in which he believed Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Captain America were all fighting with him even though they were all in his head, made him more like the S.H.I.E.L.D. monster than is comfortable. Shalvey draws a terrifying Khonshu, too, turning this into a horror book at the very end, plumbing the depths of Ellis's new view of Moon Knight's condition better than Ellis's words do. All of this stands in stark contrast to the void at the center of the book. Shalvey gives Moon Knight a three-piece suit, much like he wore in Ellis's Secret Avengers, and he and Bellaire turn the hero into an abyss.

It's not that he's dressed in white; he looks uncolored, as if he has stepped out of a black and white film into a world of colors - dingy colors, but colors nevertheless. Shalvey inks him as roughly as anything else, but he's crisper than the characters and settings around him, and Bellaire, who uses sickly yellows in the alley when Moon Knight speaks to Flint and murderous red for the confrontation with the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, keeps Moon Knight immaculate throughout. Moon Knight does not become yellow tinted when he stands in the alley, nor does the red shimmer against his white suit. He remains painfully white, as if the outside world no longer touches him. He is separate from the world - his connections have been severed. This becomes clear when he walks into a cobwebbed mansion at the end of the issue. The blood and grime doesn't touch him, but the implication is that nothing else does, either. He reflects only what others project onto him, and to the only "regular" folk in the book - Joy and Flint and the random cops - he is the aloof superhero. Therefore, he becomes the untouchable and abyssal character, with no separate existence of his own.

This is all in 20 pages. Plus, a brilliant retcon. Ellis can write a great comic, and it's nice to see he's bringing his "A" game to Moon Knight. That's always keen.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Go gentle into that good night

Detective Comics #29 ("Gothtopia Part 3 of 3: The Truth and Nothing But") by Blond (colorist), Jared K. Fletcher (letterer), John Layman (writer), Aaron Lopresti (penciller), Art Thibert (inker), Katie Kubert (associate editor), and Mike Marts (editor). $3.99, 22 pgs, FC, DC. Batman, Jonathan Crane, Catwoman, and James Gordon created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Professor Pyg created by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert. Mr. Freeze created by Bob Kane, David Wood, and Sheldon Moldoff. Harley Quinn created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Poison Ivy created by Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff.

Layman's "run" on Detective ends with a sturdy but forgettable story, making this about as old-school a run as you're going to get in modern comics. If we ignore the production values of the physical product, this could easily be a bunch of stories from the pre-Miller Batman or even the pre-O'Neil Batman. When Our Dread Lord and Master does his posts about the Best Runs, people often wonder why stuff from the 1950s and 1960s doesn't place higher, and my theory is that our notion of "runs" has been informed by the modern definition, which is a writer (and, let's hope, an artist) telling a relatively complete story in as many issues as he or she feels like. When I brought that up, some commenters disabused of that notion, claiming a "run" is any lengthy sequence of issues that a specific creator (let's be honest, it's usually a writer) worked on a book, whether those stories were connected or not. This is how comics worked in the 1950s and 1960s, when single-issue stories were the norm and even anthologies sold relatively well. I would argue that kind of "run" is not prevalent enough anymore to be a consideration, but Layman gives it the old college try. Unlike Scott Snyder on Batman, Layman did not write Detective as an epic that all tied together. He began in issue #13 and simply wrote 17 issues of the book, without putting any kind of stamp on the character whatsoever. That's not to say he wrote bad stories, but they were simple Batman stories, in which our hero was faced with a bad guy and defeated him. There wasn't a great deal of psychological trauma - a little, but not much - and Batman didn't change an iota as a character. The most interesting character in Layman's run was Emperor Penguin (Ignatius Ogilvy), who took over the Penguin's operation and became a genuine threat to Batman in Layman's initial arc. Ogilvy was so well constructed (despite the turn to super-villainy he took) that it's difficult to believe that DC wouldn't let Layman kill Cobblepot and replace him completely, but Ogilvy remains a character that can easily enter Batman's "rogues' gallery," if another writer chooses to pick him up. Other than that, there's not much Layman contributed to the Batman mythos. However, it's fairly clear from the direction of the DCnU and what other writers have said upon leaving DC, that this kind of run is exactly what DC is looking for. Layman did what they wanted, and got a nice payday for it. The readers got some entertaining comics, but ones that will not resonate in any way. Detective #13-29 is a study in a work-for-hire writer doing what the real creative drivers at the company - the editors - want for the character. When you run a company like that, you hope that the person you're hiring is at least talented, because that might mitigate the stifling of the creative urge. Layman's Detective run is entertaining because Layman obviously knows how to play the game and he's good enough to make it work for him. It's just a shame that DC feels like their characters are so sacrosanct that they can't do anything to upset the status quo. Right now, Marvel is better at the "illusion of change" that both it and DC try so hard to perfect - they both have to hold onto their IPs, but DC seems to be doing it in the dullest way possible. Layman got paid, though, and if that helps Chew at all, more power to him!

One totally Airwolf panel:

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Danny Ocean is always one step ahead

Loki: Agent of Asgard #2 ("Loki and Lorelei, Sitting in a Tree ...") by Clayton Cowles (letterer), Al Ewing (writer), Lee Garbett (artist), Nolan Woodard (colorist), Jon Moisan (assistant editor), Wil Moss (editor), and Lauren Sankovitch (editor). $2.99, 20 pgs, FC, Marvel.

The second issue of Loki is better than the first, which was pretty good on its own, so I'm looking forward to reading this series for a little bit. One thing that Ewing does in this issue - and seems to have a penchant for - is make the presence of the writer known. It's not a new trick at all, and used poorly, it can be deadly to a work of fiction, but Ewing does it quite nicely in this issue. He keeps the tone light with narrated cutaways that nevertheless remind us of awful events (the end of Gillen's Journey into Mystery) and tells the story in a casual way, which fits Loki's personality. There's a very funny call-back to a romance comic from the 1950s, which both Ewing and Garbett and Woodard get perfectly. As we saw at the end of issue #1, something dark is going to happen, but Ewing wisely doesn't let that get in the way of telling fun stories.

Another thing he does nicely is construct the story so that it's Loki telling the story, and of course, Loki is a liar, so who knows how much of this is true? Ewing toys with the reader until the end, when we get confirmation that Loki is, indeed, telling the truth. Verity (really, Ewing?) seems like the kind of character a writer can fall in love with (I'm half in love with her already), and I'm hopeful that she'll be back. Ewing does a nice job making the tale sound like it's the truth while always keeping it in the back of our heads that Loki is a liar, which creates tension in the narrative, which is never a bad thing. The other interesting aspect of the issue is this: Why is Verity speed dating? Is it masochism, or something nastier? Could there be more to Verity than Ewing is letting on?!?!?!?

Ewing is an interesting writer, and it's nice that he's getting work at Marvel these days. It's even better that he's writing something I'm actually interested in. Loki has gotten off to a strong start. Isn't that nice?

One totally Airwolf panel:

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

One panel

Beasts of Burden: Hunters and Gatherers by Jason Arthur (letterer), Evan Dorkin (writer), Jill Thompson (artist), Freddye Lins (assistant editor), and Scott Allie (editor). $3.50, 22 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.

Comics don't often show their characters as really scared. In superhero comics, the default setting is bravery, no matter what, and occasionally a writer will write something to the effect of "Boy, was I scared," but you wouldn't know it by looking at the character, who's usually drawn largely the same if they're scared or not. In other comics, even horror comics, fear seems to be difficult to portray - artists can do it, and occasionally get it right, but it seems like we get "fear" mainly from narrative captions and circumstances. Fear is such a big part of genre fiction, yet it's not often portrayed all that well.

And then there's Beasts of Burden: Hunters and Gatherers, the latest one-shot in Dorkin and Thompson's glacially-paced serial (for people who dig BoB, it's torture waiting for each new issue). On page 13, we see this:

The animals of the group are trying to lure a monster out of the forest and kill it, and they're running a relay so that no one animal gets too tired. Ace is the latest animal to run from the monster, which the reader hasn't seen yet. As Ace jumps a stone wall, he lands on some trash and twists his ankle, and the monster bursts through the wall behind him. Both Dorkin and Thompson - especially Thompson - show Ace's terror brilliantly in this panel. Dorkin's script simply calls for the frenzied "No! No!" as Ace rolls onto his back. Thompson puts Ace on his back, the position of submission for dogs, which shows his helplessness. She opens Ace's mouth a little, and because of the angle of the shot, his mouth is turned downward, showing how upset he is. He turns his head to his left, trying to scramble away, but his eye leads us back down his body to the unseen monster and his ear lies flat against his head. Thompson uses light "afterimages" and speed lines to show how much he's flailing and how uncontrolled he is - he can't stop what he's doing because fear has taken him over. Thompson's beautiful paint job on this book works here, too, as Thompson gradually blends the white of his fur with the green of the grass, making the "afterimages" move even more quickly and blur with the green around him. Thompson uses white spots above his eye as other artists would use sweat flying off someone moving, and it's interesting because it humanizes Ace. Thompson or Arthur's sound effects are nice, too - Ace is obviously scratching the monster, and that's colored red, while the howl of the monster is more teal, linking the monster to more cool tones, and when we see the monster right below this panel, it's reptilian (and therefore cold-blooded), making the choice to color its sounds like this rather inspired.

The comic, like the other Beasts of Burden comics, is very good, but that panel shows pure terror, much more than so many other comics. Comics are more interesting when the characters experience all sorts of emotions, and this one is lucky that Thompson is so good at what she does!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Oedipus and Jocasta

Airboy Archives volume 1 by Air Rescue (colorist, issue #8), Hilary Barta (inker, issue #11), Willie Blyberg (inker, issues #3-6, 8), Jeff Butler (inker, issue #7), Ron Courtney (colorist, issues #1-5), Jeff [sic] Darrow (inker, "I Don't Need My Grave" in issue #12), Kim DeMulder (inker, issue #12), Charles "Chuck" Dixon (writer, issues #1-10, 12-16; "I Don't Need My Grave" in issues #11-12), Ben Dunn (penciller, issue #11), Larry Elmore (artist, "China Hands" in issues #9-10), Tim Harkins (letterer, issues #1-12, 14-16; "Queen of the Yeti Valley" in issues #13-14), Steve Haynie (letterer, issue #13), Vern Henkel (inker, "White Lightning" in issues #15-16), Bill Jaaska (artist, "I Don't Need My Grave" in issues #11-12), Tom Lyle (penciller, "Queen of the Yeti Valley" in issues #13-14; "White Lightning" in issue #16), Moon Doggies (colorist, issues #9), Mark A. Nelson (inker, issues #9, 13-16), Emil Novak (inker, issue #5), John Nyberg (inker, issue #10), Steve Oliff (colorist, issues #6-7, 10-16; "China Hands" in issues #9-10), Romeo Tanghal (inker, "Queen of the Yeti Valley" in issues #13-14), Tim Truman (penciller/layouter, issues #1-2; writer, issue #11), Stan Woch (penciller, issues #3-10, 12-16; "White Lightning" in issue #15), Tom Yeates (inker/finisher, issues #1-2), Justin Eisinger (collection editor), and Alonzo Simon (collection editor). $29.99, 311 pgs, FC, IDW.

In 1986, Eclipse dusted off Airboy from the 1940s and '50s and started publishing new stories under the direction of Tim Truman and Chuck Dixon, who writes the introduction to this volume.

Dixon notes that he and cat yronwode, Eclipse's Grand Poobah, were about as diametrically opposed politically as two people could be, which led to some controversial stories. I'm not sure if the "controversial" stories are the ones in this volume, but politically, at least, these stories aren't that outré. This volume collects the first 16 issues, which came out twice a month from July 1986 to February 1987. Why twice a month? Beats me. The first issues were shorter than traditional comics, but beginning in issue #9, they expanded to full-length issues, with back-up stories about Skywolf, one of Airboy's allies, and his post-World War II adventures. Eclipse was pulling Marvel-type double-shipping shenanigans 20 years before it became fashionable!

Dixon writes almost the entire volume (Truman wrote issue #11, which is bizarrely told from the point of view of Airboy's plane), and like many Dixon stories, they're full of guns, explosions, thoroughly evil villains (no shades of gray for Dixon!), sexy women, and father/son issues. Like many chesty macho American writers, Dixon has some paternal issues to work through, at least in his writing (I know absolutely nothing about Dixon's personal life), so we get Davy Nelson, whose father is killed in issue #1 before Davy can find out that his dad was famed World War II costumed hero AIRBOY! David Nelson's death means that Davy never gets to reconcile with his somewhat aloof father, who spent years hiding his identity and attempting to free the love of his life, Valkyrie, from an evil sorcerer who placed her in suspended animation.

Davy is naturally a bit disappointed to learn that his father was pining away for a stereotypical Nazi she-wolf even while he was marrying a different woman and begetting an heir. Then Davy learns that his dad's aviation company, which the old man neglected in his quixotic quest to save Valkyrie, has been selling arms to the worst scum of the universe (okay, just the Earth), something Davy decides to put right. Dixon introduces (and re-introduces) two surrogate fathers for Davy - Hirota, a Japanese pilot whom David shot down but who became his friend and mentor to his son; and Skywolf, another costumed flier from the war who represents what David could have become. To complete the Oedipal situation, Davy defeats Misery, the sorcerer keeping Valkyrie alive, and she instantly falls in love with him even though she realizes that she loves the idea of David Nelson more than his son. Still, she can't escape Davy's orbit, and presumably their romance continued throughout the series. Davy has to "kill" his father - represented by David's aviation business, which Davy has to reform completely - and fuck his "mother" - Valkyrie isn't his mother, of course, but she could have been - and Dixon plays it all totally straight (as he does the rest of the book; he writes in the introduction that Dean Mullaney - publisher of Eclipse - and yronwode insisted that the book be presented completely earnestly), which only makes it more twisted. By this time, the idea of an ugly, rotting, depraved skeleton-like monster keeping an attractive woman who famously eschews underwear in a glass cage for 20 years would be charged with far more sexual overtones than earlier fairy tales (which were pretty twisted in their own right), and the fact that Dixon ignores the most disturbing rape aspects of Valkyrie's imprisonment and has her, almost immediately after her traumatic awakening, attempt to seduce him, speaks to the male-centric comics scene that still impedes honest conversation about sexual trauma in comics but also can be seen has a twisted punishment of Valkyrie for her crimes while she flew with the Nazis. The fact that she leaves Davy and almost immediately (again) falls into the arms of Victor Heller, with whom she has a one-night stand and who is later revealed to be a werewolf (no sexual metaphors there!) is even more problematic.

Dixon, like so many manly writers before him, writes women basically as men with boobs, so while Valkyrie can handle herself as or more ably than the men in combat and Skywolf's mother is unfazed when men who far outnumber her come to kill her (she, naturally, always carries a shotgun in her lap - she's in a wheelchair - because why wouldn't she?), Dixon has no idea how to deal with the more puzzling emotional challenges of the book, both for Valkyrie and Davy. He hints at it, but because the book is basically an adventure story on acid, there's no time to pause before the next explosion of violence.

But because Dixon writes this straight, it's still a wild, grand adventure, full of weird villains, easy targets (evil corporate leaders, vile Central American dictators, drug dealers, exotic Asian women, Klan members), a guest-starring turn from the Heap, and lots and lots of violence. For someone who places himself on the conservative side of the political spectrum, Dixon doesn't espouse many political opinions that appear to outside the mainstream in these stories. Corporations that sell arms to villains are bad; evil dictators can hide behind the banner of "anti-Communism" to gain political favors from the United States; Americans of Hispanic origin are as American as anyone; cocaine is bad; helping villagers in China is not the same as being on Mao's side - none of these positions are in any way controversial except to the most extreme fringe of political nutbags, yet Dixon addresses them in the stories without really worrying about what anyone says.

Perhaps the most controversial stance he takes in Reagan's America is the fact that the evil dictator whose ally, Misery, is holding Valkyrie is that the dictator promises to stamp out Communism and so is a friend to the States, but even that isn't that big a deal - General Orista is so beyond the Pale that there's no question that he has to go. Despite the relative simplistic politics of the comic, Dixon does tackle them and uses them to espouse a view of decent people making a difference in the world, even if the world seems irredeemably evil. It's an optimistic worldview, and it makes Airboy a pleasant comic even with all the weird sexual undercurrents running through it (Valkyrie's story is certainly not the only weird sex thing going on - Manic and the Cowgirl are a whole different story!).

Stan Woch's no-nonsense art, far better here than anything I've seen by him in other works (granted, I haven't seen too much of Woch's work, but I've never been too impressed with it), grounds the goofiness as much as Dixon's earnest scripts do. Yes, Valkyries wanders around without a bra all the time, but Woch doesn't sensationalize it, which makes it easier to believe she wouldn't be falling out of those shirts every time she moves. Valkyrie, who has been frozen for decades, is not much older than Davy, but Woch gives her a world-weary look that contrasts sharply with Davy's cherubic innocence, even as Davy becomes more hardened over the course of the comic. Dixon's scripts are packed, and Woch's layouts fit everything in very nicely, even as he has to show a lot of fighting, both on the ground and in the air. The few emotional beats that Dixon works into the script are handled well by Woch - Manic's surprise at Skywolf's cheating and the final scene with the second evil dictator and his wife stand out, but Woch also does a nice job with Davy's defiance when he's dropped in a hole in the ground and tortured. As I've noted before, one way to "date" a comic without making it painful is to pay close attention to fashion, and Woch sets this in the wealth-obsessed 1980s very well when he gets to draw people in "civilian" clothing.

One very interesting thing about the presentation of the book is that IDW chose to publish this as a "Golden Age" comic - the pages are thick, slightly off-white, and rough, not glossy in the least, and the book smells like the Golden Age collections that Fantagraphics publishes. You might not think it makes a difference, but it does - the old-school art and colors are far better suited for this kind of paper than for the more modern glossy stuff, and the thickness of the paper and the smell give this book the heft of a relic, the kind of book you want to sit down with and absorb as much as read. It was a great choice by IDW. The only problem with the book is that the art falls into the spine too much, so it might have been better to expand its dimensions a bit. They can't all be perfect, right?

Dixon's presentation of this as earnest adventure heightens the disturbing aspects of it, perhaps unintentionally (Dixon writes in the foreword that he and Truman knew the Valkyrie/Davy relationship would be weird, but I wonder if they thought it would be as weird as it is), making Airboy more than just a big war epic. That it's entertaining on the textual level and far more disturbing on the subtextual level makes it a fascinating read, one that speaks to the way comics were in the 1980s, the way society was in the 1980s, and the issues with mature topics in what should be just an adventure comic. It's a pretty neat collection. Let's hope IDW brings out more!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

"Don't draw what you can trace. Don't trace what you can paste up. Then draw the fuck out of what's left."

Cannon by Wallace Wood (writer/artist) with additional art by Steve Ditko. $35.00, 288 pgs, BW, Fantagraphics.

The quote above is attributed to Wallace Wood, as Howard Chaykin notes in his introduction, but even if he didn't say it, Chaykin points out, it sounds like something he would say. What it means, of course, is that Wood and his contemporaries were certainly not adverse to tracing, as we see quite often in this collection, where Wood uses obvious pictures of cars, planes and cityscapes and drops them into panels, occasionally using the same car and the same angle more than once. This cavalier attitude to using references is refreshing, because it's clear that despite it, guys like Wood were "drawing the fuck out of what's left." Chaykin points out that Wood hired him to pencil Shattuck, and Chaykin delivered "dreadful" work which was transformed by Wood's inks, because "pencils inked by Woody became his property."

Cannon is all Wood, from pencils to inks, but Chaykin notes it's the same thing - the raw pencils, according to him, were "Frankensteinian," but Wood's brush turned them into a coherent whole.

It's noteworthy to consider Chaykin's words about Wood because readers today tend to forget that Wood, along with so many of his collaborators, were hacks. This term raises the hackles (pun intended) of our sensibilities, but it's true - Wood and many other artists of the time were hired to create product as fast as possible, usually for a meager pay that was nevertheless steady. Marvel, where Wood helped redefine Daredevil by giving him a red costume, wasn't treating its creators not named Stan Lee very well. Warren and other smaller publishers let creators do what they wanted, but they paid less.

Cannon's first appearance, in Heroes, Inc. Presents Cannon (from 1969), was self-published, so obviously Wood would care more about that, but the strip Cannon was created for the U.S. Army publication Overseas Weekly, so Wood had to come up with a strip every week - two strips, actually, as his Sally Forth also appeared in the newspaper (and due to time constraints, he used other writer-artists like Larry Hama on the strip). So much of what we consider the "classic" stuff by these great artists was produced very quickly, with very little regard for whether future readers would have access to it. Today's writers and artists might still be treated shabbily by publishers, but the situation is still much better than when Wood was in his heyday. The fact that he (and so many others) could produce such magnificent artwork under such conditions is almost miraculous.

That doesn't mean there aren't problems with Cannon. I can't decide if it's the most amazing thing I've ever read or the most morally reprehensible thing I've ever read.

In fact, it's amazing partly because it's so morally reprehensible. John Cannon is a more manly James Bond, which for the early 1970s means he holds attitudes that would make Don Draper say "Hey, rein it in, there, pal." As Cannon was produced for an entirely male, military audience without the Comics Code, it's a softcore James Bond, in that there are very few strips without at least one naked woman in them. In a book with 263 strips in it, naked women appear in a whopping 165 of them (63%). The women get naked at the least provocation - they often lounge around their houses naked (like women do), but Wood gets them naked in ridiculous ways, too. Early in the book, Cannon rescues a Middle Eastern leader and his wife from a torture chamber and tells the (naked) wife that there's no time for her to put clothes on before they flee. Later, Cannon's fiancée is kidnapped because she transcribed some top-secret notes and the bad guys want to get that knowledge out of her head. The lesbian (she's very attractive, but Cannon calls her "mannish" and his boss says she's about "as effeminate as Sonny Liston") torturer strips her naked just to attach electrodes to her head, and when her accomplice asks her why, she says "I prefer it that way ... it suits my methods."

There is a great deal of implied rape in the book, although only one character, Madame Toy, uses the word, but while only one woman seems to enjoy rough stuff - she's a "pain freak," one of her lovers notes - it doesn't appear to cause any psychological damage to any of them. Women, obviously, use sex as a means of control constantly, and Wood implies that the men would be far happier simply killing each other like men if only women weren't around to mess things up ... which is not an uncommon theme in "manly" fiction like this. Elena, whom Cannon eventually consents to marry, tries to entrap him by claiming she's pregnant, which only drives him away for a time (and Elena, like so many other women in fiction, pays for her association with the hero with her life). The most absurd relationship in the book is Cannon's with Madame Toy, the Chinese torturer. They hate and love each other with equal passion, leading to scenes where Toy tortures Cannon before mounting him for some rough sex. Toy even gets in a catfight with Sue Smith, a Russian mole, who also torn between her duty to her evil masters and her attraction to Cannon. In one of the book's most hilarious scenes, a group of Central American Indians show up at the cabin where Cannon is hiding out with the two women, and we get this:

Despite the rather warped sexual politics (which might have been more acceptable in the early 1970s, but still seem extreme for the time period), Cannon is a wildly entertaining strip, full of action and excitement. Cannon helps thwart Chinese Commies in the Middle East; escapes Russian Commies in Iowa (where his uncle lives; Cannon goes there to decompress and usually finds ... DANGER!);

overthrows an evil dictator in Central America (the first of two dudes in the book who thinks he's Hitler, and the first of two times an atomic bomb explodes in the book); kills the Commie who replaces the dictator; has to save the life of a con man who pretends to be a hit man and targets the wrong mob boss; becomes a drunk and has to head back to Iowa to dry out; gets a job on a farm simply so he can romance the farmer's daughter, who's more than willing to get horizontal with him; gets involved with another woman who happens to be married to an old friend; infiltrates a bunch of anti-government hippies while an agent friend infiltrates an anti-government right-wing group, which they set against each other so they destroy each other; fights against an evil rich dude with a prosthetic body who is trying to destroy Cannon's agency; uncovers a mole within his agency; and returns to the Middle East to find the general he rescued at the beginning, who has been imprisoned once again by yet another dude who thinks he's Hitler and wants to resurrect the Reich (which leads to the second atomic bomb explosion in the book). It's absolutely nuts, and perfect for a weekly strip, because Wood never really takes any breaks - almost before the previous adventure ends, Cannon is off on another one!

It really is a gorgeous comic. Wood might be working fast, but his art is never less than beautiful. His women, naturally, look amazing, and he does a fairly good job of obscuring their groins with whatever is handy - I guess in the military newspaper, it's boobs yes, snatch no - and it's kind of impressive how they never look too ridiculous even though they're naked in ridiculous situations.

His brushwork is tremendous - he uses hatching lines to amazing effect and shading to even better effect, and he never takes panels off, even those in which it's obvious he used photo references. He uses Zip-A-Tone quite well to add texture where he doesn't use brushes, and it's staggering to see all the little touches he makes with very simple strokes and how easily he shifts from thin lines to gouts of black smoke in the action scenes. In some panels, we might think he's tracing something, but the details he puts into the inking make the work his very own, which is a tremendous skill to have. Despite the fact that the comic is fairly melodramatic, Wood still does a lot of work on the characters, making their reactions believable even if they're a bit over the top. He's also very smart with fashion, as everyone dresses like we'd expect the characters to dress in the early 1970s ... even if the women are losing those clothes quite often.

Cannon is one of those offensive comics that I don't think we can stay mad at for too long. Yes, it presents a regressive view of women, but unlike some of the extremely racist comics from the early days even past this period, the women in Cannon are often very capable of holding their own, even if the main character is their one weakness. Cannon's attitude toward them dominates the comic, but it's not clear that Wood held these attitudes, as Cannon isn't presented, like James Bond often was, as the paragon of manly virtue. Wood walks a fine line, but the value of Wood's art makes up for the tone-deaf portrayal of women in the strip. At least I think it does. Cannon isn't the greatest comic if you're looking for a deeply nuanced spy comic, but if you're looking for an insane spy comic drawn by one of the masters of the form, it's definitely something to check out.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A Centuries-Long Soap Opera

Caesars' Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire by Annelise Freisenbruch. 347 pgs, Free Press, 2010.

Freisenbruch's book is exactly what it claims to be - a biographical survey of the most famous women of the Roman Empire, from Livia, who married Octavian and became the empress soon afterward, all the way to Galla Placidia and Pulcheria in the 450s, who presided over the slow rot of the empire. Women, unsurprisingly, have been marginalized for centuries, both in primary documents (especially in primary documents) and in history books, as male historians for decades accepted the writings of people like Tacitus, Suetonius, Zosimus, and Jerome as gospel, despite the obvious biases in their work. Freisenbruch uses those sources, but like most recent historians, she takes their writings with a grain of salt, placing them in their proper context and examining them as the biased sources they are. In the past few decades, archeological evidence has become much more important in history, and Freisenbruch is able to use numismatic evidence to contradict some of the vitriol coming from the male writers of the ancient world. The fact that several women were shown on coins, some as equal to the emperors (Agrippina Minor, Nero's mother, is even shown as more important on early coins from that emperor's reign), puts the writings of the men in a more interesting context. The writers are a good source, as they explain how deeply the women were involved in politics, but it's usually to denigrate them for doing so. Freisenbruch shows that despite their writings, imperial women were not necessarily belittled because they involved themselves in politics.

Freisenbruch does point out how women could involve themselves in politics. Republican examples of women who were steadfast mothers and proud supporters of their husbands and sons abounded, and Livia, for example, became another paragon for later generations. Freisenbruch doesn't upend the known limitations about women - even if they exercised power behind the scenes, they were never allowed even to step into the Senate (Agrippina got around this, but she was excoriated later for it), they were condemned for adultery even though men were not (men were only forbidden from committing adultery with married women - single women and slaves were fair game), they were pressured into marriages (some of the women were able to escape the marriage carousel through extraordinary circumstances, but they were exceptions), and any power they had was based strictly on their relationships with the men who ran the empire - but she does broaden the perspective of options open to the women who managed to gain entrance to the innermost circles of power. Many women had a great deal of influence over the emperors, and Freisenbruch does a nice job showing how they were able to gain it and keep it. One of the weaknesses of the book is that Freisenbruch doesn't get too much into how influential they really were - only in certain places can we see a woman using her power to change policy, such as the question of whether Helena helped convert Constantine to Christianity. The women might have had some control over their men, but Freisenbruch doesn't get into the tangible effects that had as much as she might have.

What she does get into is the soap opera aspect of the lives of the women (and men) who ran the empire. She spends a lot of time on Julia, Augustus's daughter, who was notorious for her sexual appetites and was eventually banished for it. Julia may have not been as libertine as writers claimed - contemporary sources are noticeably lacking - but there's no doubt she was not the moral paragon that Augustus demanded of his female relatives. Freisenbruch does a good job showing how certain tropes were used by writers to link women to immorality, which calls into question the reliability of those sources - Julia and Messalina (Claudius's wife) were both condemned in very similar ways. In later years, the soap opera aspects of the book take on a more political cast, as the emperors between Septimius Severus (died 211) and Diocletian (whose reign began in 284) and then again the emperors of the later fourth century and fifth century were young and often dominated by their mothers, who became more and more involved in politics while still finding themselves in dangerous waters quite often, much like their male counterparts. The lack of sources in the later centuries, either because of the barbarian invasions or because Christian writers tried to stamp out pagan historians, means the last part of the book moves along a bit too briskly - Freisenbruch spends over 100 pages on the Julio-Claudians and about the same amount of space on the Flavians, the Antonines, the Severans, the Constantinians, and the Theodosians - but it's not necessarily all her fault.

The biggest problem with the book is not something Freisenbruch seems overly concerned with, given her focus. By looking only at imperial women, she presents a false portrait of how women lived during this time. Freisenbruch is writing a "Great Man" history book (except it's more accurately a "Great Woman" book), so she falls into the same traps that historians writing about great men in history always fall into, and that's subtly implying that the lives of the very rich are somehow analogous to the lives of the commoners. She mentions that the women of the imperial dynasties shouldn't be conflated with the lives of women in general, but that sentiment is overwhelmed by the breathless gossip of the imperial court. It's a fascinating book, to be sure, and it highlights far more women than we usually get in history books, which might mention Agrippina and Helena, but that's about it. Like most "Great Men" history books, however, we have to be careful not to confuse the way the powerful live with the way the rest live. Just because women like Livia or Julia Domna were able to accrue power to themselves over a long period doesn't mean that common women were treated well. Freisenbruch does make that point occasionally, but it does tend to get swept away by all the sex and murder.

Still, Caesars' Wives is an interesting and often exciting book. For people who like Roman history (and who doesn't), it fills in some nice blanks, especially when it comes to Caracella, Geta, and the later emperors. I always appreciate learning new stuff about eras I'm fairly familiar with, so this was a pretty neat book to read.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


In the Woods by Tana French. 429 pgs, Penguin Books, 2007.

So, minor SPOILERS ahead? The book came out seven years ago, so I don't know if the statute of limitations has passed. I won't spoil the actual murder mystery, though, so fret not.

Chekhov's Gun is a literary principle for a reason, and while I don't subscribe to it as an exclusive tenet, it is handy to follow because readers/viewers don't like thinking that what they're reading has no point. There are places where it doesn't and shouldn't apply, but because readers are so conditioned to see it, breaking the principle can throw us off, especially when the placement of the gun is such a large part of the narrative. Such it is with In the Woods, Tana French's debut novel, which, if we apply Chekhov's Gun to it, could easily pare 200 pages out of its narrative. On the one hand, I didn't mind the fact that one of the seemingly most important plot points is a MacGuffin, because French's prose is so good, but on the other hand, the book left me with an empty feeling, as if we excise what's unnecessary from the book, the actual murder mystery becomes far too prosaic.

The part I'm going to spoil is the fact that French doesn't do much with the MacGuffin. She gives us an Irish police detective, Rob Ryan, who gets a murder case in his old home town. Before that, though, we learn that he's the survivor of an abduction - in 1984, his two best friends vanished from the woods near his home and he was found with no memory of what happened. No one except his partner knows that Rob Ryan is Adam Ryan, the boy from the woods, as he has tried to hide his past. He and his partner, Cassie, find a hair clip at the murder scene - a 12-year-old girl is the victim - that Ryan believes belonged to the girl who disappeared, leading them to think the two cases might be connected. Ryan knows he should excuse himself from the case, but he doesn't. If you think it won't blow up on him, you haven't read enough fiction.

Ryan narrates the book, and while he tells us that his case isn't going to be solved, French devotes so much time to it that the reader begins to think he's lying. This is where the book goes off the rails, because as Ryan begins to remember things about the summer of 1984, it does seem like the cases could be connected. French, however, eventually waves her hand and says "Sorry, it's all a misdirect!" As I mentioned, her writing is very strong, so the way she slowly brings Ryan's memories back and then cuts them off is very well done, but it doesn't mitigate the fact that the entire plot thread is largely wasted. Ryan's problems in the present don't even seem to stem from his trauma in the past - he often acts like a stereotypical man, which has nothing to do with childhood issues - which renders his reminiscences even more irrelevant. French continually hints that there's something about the summer that wasn't quite right, but she pulls back before she gets there, and we're left with a frustrating sidebar that lasts quite a long time to go nowhere. The mystery itself is, again, well constructed and well written, but if you start to think about it a bit, French relies far too much on clichés, and even at the very beginning, there appear to be only two viable suspects, both of whom fall into a standard "killer" slot. French's darkly lyrical prose goes a long way to covering up the weaknesses in the narrative, but it never completely spackles over them.

Despite this, In the Woods is a gripping page-turner. One of the good things about the narrative is that French gives us a world where things don't always work out or even resolve. This is where her betrayal of Chekhov's Gun works for her, because In the Woods is a far more complex book than most detective fiction, in that we expect certain things from detective fiction and French confounds us almost at every turn. While some of her choices are hackneyed (including one that made me grit my teeth with anger, because it feels absolutely false and shoehorned in), most are not, and it adds a depth to the world that otherwise would have made this a simplistic morality tale. French's intense style also makes the fact that things don't always work out less facile than a lot of books, where things don't work out simply for the sake of shock value. French is too smart for that; she often "spoils" things herself by having Ryan explain to us that things aren't going to work out (he, narrating this in the past tense, obviously knows what happens). In the Woods is a tragedy, but not necessarily for the reasons we think it is, and French is a good enough writer that she's able to write beautiful prose even as some things falter around her. The moment I hated most in the book, in fact, is absolutely beautifully written, and it's that tension, between wonderful writing and somewhat clichéd actions, that makes the book less than great. But large portions of it are great, and if you can get around the worst parts of it, it's an extremely enjoyable book.

French has written three other books; my wife has read two of them and claims the third, Faithful Place, is really, really good, so I'll probably check those out. In the Woods is a good book, but it could have been great. Still, a worthy read.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


The founder and lead singer of GWAR has died at the age of 50. I never saw GWAR live, although some of my friends have, and they say it was quite the trip. Pour one out for Dave Brockie, a.k.a Oderus Urungus.

I haven't been listening to my iPod recently, mainly because I wanted to listen to some CDs, especially music I don't have on my iPod, and then I saw something interesting over at MightyGodKing. He asked people to list five songs so he could listen to them and see if he wanted to add them to his library. I thought that was a good idea. However, I don't know if I have the time for five songs (neither does he, apparently; the last post he made on the subject was two months ago, and he's only gotten through three letters of the alphabet), so I'm asking for three (3) songs. They can be any songs you want, although if you've read some of my posts in the past, you know generally what kind of music I like. But that's okay - if you have a song that you like even though it's not in my wheelhouse, feel free to suggest it! If it's at all possible to link to a recording of it - whether on YouTube or another site - that would be helpful, as it will save me the trouble of tracking them down. I will listen to them and offer my thoughts in future posts, and I hope that I can expand my music library from it. I hope it will be fun!

So that's some of the comics I bought this month, and the prose books I read. I may or may not have time in the near future to go back to weekly reviews, but we shall see about that. I hope everyone has a nice evening and a good week!

Incoming: Marvel Reveals New Covers for 2019's Final, Massive One-Shot

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